What I Read – 2021

I read 26 books this year. It was a bit of an off year which is odd considering the fact that I was house bound for half the year. Anyway, here’s some of what my eyeballs did when not riding my bike in circles.

Conversations with Friends – Sally Rooney. Two Irish women. Young. Talented. Witty. Wise. Lesbian, or not. This is a worthy follow up to Rooney’s debut, Normal People. The characters are not particularly likeable but the writing is first rate.

Just Like Us – Nick Hornby. Hornby’s novel about Brexit, bigotry, and May-December romance. I’ve never not liked a Hornby book. This one was no exception.

The Cold Millions – Jess Walter. An historical novel about the socialist labor movement in the early 1900s set in the Pacific Northwest. Industrialists backed by thuggish police confront upstart labor activists. Sounds boring but it’s filled with interesting characters and, to me, forgotten social issues that resonate today. I need to read more of Walter’s books.

Anxious People – Fredrik Bachman. A desperate thief tries to rob a bank that has no cash on hand. Oops. The thief escapes but ends up rather incompetently taking hostages at an apartment open house. If Nick Hornby were Swedish, his name would be Fredrik Bachman.

The Splendid and the Vile – Erik Larson. I’ve been to London three times. On my last trip I visited the Churchill War rooms. Once the tour was over I couldn’t stop thinking what it must have been like in England when the Germans bombed the country at the start of World War II. This book describes exactly that. Fascinating. It made me wonder how DC would react under similar circumstances.

Pretty Girls – Karin Slaughter. Modern gothic fiction in the style of Gone Girl. A very entertaining book with lots of twists and turns. Don’t trust anybody.

The Searcher – Tara French. French channels Robert B. Parker in this tale of a former Chicago detective living in rural Ireland where he gets involved in an unsolved local crime. The small town is filled with loquacious Irish characters who have secrets. I was half expecting Hawk to make an entrance halfway through the book.

State of the Union – Nick Hornby. This is a series of short teleplays written by Hornby for Sundance TV. The teleplays are nearly entirely discussions between a couple hanging out in a pub while waiting to attend their weekly session with a marriage counsellor. The scripts are wonderful in their own right but the performances by Rosamund Pike and Chris O’Dowd in the miniseries turn them into gold. Watch the shows.

In the Garden of Beasts – Erik Larson. The true tale of the principled academic who is appointed American ambassador to Germany during Hitler’s rise to power. Career diplomats loath him and try to undercut him. His daughter carries on affairs with young Nazis who are rising through the ranks. An interesting companion piece to The Splendid and the Vile.

Sam Phillips – Peter Guralnick. If you want to know about rock and roll from the ground up, this book is for you. Phillips launched the recording careers of Ike Turner, Elvis Presley, Charlie Rich, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and many others. After the ’50s, his life is considerably less interesting though. Guralnick’s two volume biography of Elvis and his single volume bio of Sam Cooke are better books, but I loved the fly on the wall feeling of being in the cramped Sun Studios as history was being made.

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat – Oliver Sacks. Earlier this year, I watched a PBS documentary about Sacks, a neurologist who revolutionized the field by treating his patients with uncommon empathy and compassion. His observations about the bizarre tricks the brain can play are fascinating. I read this book a long time ago and I am afraid it didn’t stand up to a re-read. I couldn’t get into his writing style this time around. His book Seeing Voices about deafness, sign language, and Gallaudet University is a better choice.

Little Fires Everywhere – Celeste Ng. Another modern gothic novel, this time set in Shaker Heights, Ohio. A well-to-do family and the family of their house cleaner become intertwined. A house burns down. Not Mandalay.

We Were Liars – E. Lockhart. A young adult novel about a group of kids who summer together on an island near Nantucket. Another house burns down. Daphne du Maurier phone home. A body is found. Eek. Another modern gothic tale.

Ten Innings at Wrigley – Kevin Cook The true tale of an insane 1979 baseball game between the Chicago Cubs and the Philadelphia Phillies that ended with the incredible score of 23-22. These teams were filled with stars some rising, some fading. Many of them are treated rather harshly by the author. Pity the pitchers.

The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle – Stuart Turton. An Agatha Christie murder mystery but with a plot driven by time travel. It’s weird. I’m not even sure it made sense. But I liked it anyway.

Project Hail Mary – Andy Weir. Weir wrote The Martian about an astronaut stranded on Mars. It was turned into a pretty darn good movie starring Matt Damon. This one involves a human who is cast off into deep space to find a way to rescue Earth which is under attack by a strangely lethal interplanetary virus of sorts. Almost certainly soon to be a major motion picture. A good book for the hammock.

Turtles All the Way Down – John Green. Another young adult novel by the writer who brought you The Fault in Our Stars. Teens solving a missing person mystery in Indianapolis.

The Vanishing Half – Brit Bennett. Two adult black sisters are separated as one passes as white. White sister goes on to live a life of privilege in California while black sister gets by in small town Louisiana. The plot revolves around an improbably twist that just didn’t work for me.

The Premonition – Michael Lewis. How a cadre of U. S. scientists tried valiantly to stem the tide of the coronavirus pandemic. The fundamental problem of forensic epidemiology is that you have to use extreme measures like lockdowns to crush a virus before it spreads. If you wait until it gets established in the community, it’s too late. The public and politicians, not to mention the Centers for Disease Control, usually wait too long. Don’t we know it. Another gem from the author of The Blind Side, Moneyball, The Big Short, and more.

The Dictionary of Lost Words – Pip Williams. Scholarly etymologists are hard at work assembling the first Oxford English Dictionary. Their method involves tying words and their usage to published texts and periodicals. The daughter of one of the etymologists becomes a word nerd and starts collecting words from women and the underclass, who are ignored by the scholars. Loved it.

The Thursday Murder Club – Richard Osman. Four retirees get together every week to try to solve murders. Then a murder happens in their own community and they set to work prying their nose into the lives of land developers, farmers, priests, and the police. Who done it? This one is written by a British comic actor and will soon find its way to the screen. I hope the movie does it justice. I can’t wait to read his follow-up The Man Who Died Twice.

Beautiful World Where Are You – Sally Rooney. I was really looking forward to Rooney’s third novel but unlike the first two, this one didn’t float my boat. One of the main characters is a very successful Irish author who provides numerous tiresome discourses on her dissatisfaction with the modern world. These seemed to be speeches from Rooney herself. Also sex scenes that, while well written, seemed excessive in number. By the third one, I was thinking “Not again. I have a headache.”

The Lincoln Highway – Amor Towles. Two young brothers head out on the road to California in search of a new life and a lost mother. All they have to do is follow the Lincoln Highway west from eastern Nebraska. A friend steals their car and heads east. And the adventure begins. This is the third novel by Towles and they just keep getting better and better.

Release – Patrick Hess. Two young adult novels in one. One about the revenge-seeking ghost of a teenage girl who was murdered; the other about a gay teenage boy who encounters a series of traumas in the course of the same day. Not for me.

Evicted – Matthew Desmond. A deep dive into the housing market for the indigent in Milwaukee told from both the landlords’ and the tenants’ perspective. It’s the ugly underbelly of life on the margin in the inner city and the trailer park. Truly a depressing book.

Sworn to Silence – Jim Tracy. The story, apparently self-published, of a serial killer in upstate NY in the early to mid 1970s. He was known to have committed four murders and eight rapes. He was suspected of many more rapes and murders. The title refers to the ethical dilemma his two attorneys faced: they knew of the whereabouts of the remains of two murder victims but couldn’t release the information because of the oath they had taken to maintain attorney-client confidentiality. The book could use a professional editor. None the less, the story is riveting and made my skin crawl.

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